Dignity and hope – Susie Linfield on the World Press Photo

Journalist and author Susie Linfield, a judge at this year's World Press Photo awards, discusses ethics and ways of exploring violence and suffering

Diane Smyth — 14 February 2014

1st Prize Daily Life Stories: Date found: 1 February 2013. Time 3:45 P.M. Location: a sugar plantation in Apopa, San Salvador, El Salvador. Sex: Female. Age: Between 17 and 18 years old. Time of disappearance: not available. The North Central American Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) is one of the most violent regions in the world. In many cases, clothes that are found become the only means to identify victims © Fred Ramos, El Salvador, El Faro

An image from Fred Ramos' series on violence in the North Central American Triangle, which won first prize in the Daily Life - Stories categories of the 2014 World Press Photo prize.

Image © Fred Ramos

“It’s the first time I have judged a competition and it was awesome – I feel very grateful to have been in a room all day every day with such a smart group of people discussing aesthetic and ethical issues,” says Susie Linfield, who was on the jury of this year’s World Press Photo but is best known for her book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. “One thing we were discussing was the ethics of certain depictions of violence and suffering, what we show and what we do not show. We discussed how to depict violence and suffering in ways that are not necessarily explicit – not necessarily showing a person starving or bleeding, but finding ways [to show the issue].

“For example, in one series each image shows a couple of articles of clothing [The Last Outfit of the Missing, by Fred Ramos, which won first prize in Daily Life – Stories]. It was shot by a photographer in the North Central American Triangle [Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador], and what they are are the clothes of the disappeared – there is a lot of drug violence and people just disappear, and their families don’t know where they are. Bodies are dug up and the police try to identify them from these terrible fragments of clothing, which is all the family have left in the end. The photographer has found a way to explore violence in the region without using mutilated bodies.”

John Stanmeyer’s winning image, which shows African migrants reaching up to catch a cheap mobile phone signal on the shores of Djibouti city, takes a similarly oblique angle, Linfield continues, to show another well-explored topic. “Often you see photographs of refugees and migrants and they are depicted as suffering and huddled; this is a very different kind of image,” she told BJP. “The man in the middle [of the shot] is depicted as almost heroic, it’s almost a Socialist-Realist-reaching towards the future way. For me, the image conveys a kind of hope and dignity.

“We also have the fact that they are trying to get a mobile phone signal from Somalia – it speaks so much to technology and globalisation. We are all connected…but even though they all have phones, they are still very isolated. It raises a lot of questions and I liked that. For me, the experience of looking at the image didn’t end with the image, and that made it very powerful.”